2015 in Music: A Month-By-Month Guide to the Biggest Events of the Year
Broken records. Broken-up bands. Career-defining performances. Comebacks and clapbacks. A lot happened in music this year: let’s review.
As we continue our celebration of all things musical in the year 2015, I invite you to take a whirlwind tour through the year that was. For each month, I’ve selected what I felt was the biggest or most emblematic moment — performance, music video, feud, etc. You might disagree with the selection I have chosen to highlight, but too bad; go write your own article! I have also included mention of other major stories for each month after the main show. And speaking of shows, let’s get this one on the road…
Rihanna Releases a Single, Tricks People Into Thinking an Album’s Coming
From 2005 until 2012, Rihanna pushed an album (or a major re-release) every year. Cut to December 2015: still no new album! It’s been a pretty bleak year in terms of #R8 updates, but we didn’t know just how dire things would become back in January. On Jan. 24, Rihanna dropped “FourFiveSeconds,” which was ostensibly meant to be the first single from her then-untitled eighth album. The song, which features Kanye West and Paul McCartney, was met with mixed reception despite reaching the Top 5 of the Hot 100. (Top 5 is no flop, but it’s hardly a peak for a woman with 12 No. 1s to her name.) And that lukewarm launch set the precedent for what would become the most mysterious and antagonizing album non-release of the year. 11 months (and two more singles) later, we still don’t have an album.
Et cetera: North West starred in Kanye West’s “Only One” music video. 🎵 Rumors suggested Taylor Swift was plotting to sabotage Katy Perry’s upcoming Super Bowl performance. 🎵 Katy Perry and John Mayer got back together for, like, the thirteenth time.
Lady Gaga Rises Like a Phoenix at the Academy Awards
Though more people tuned into Katy Perry’s Super Bowl Performance, of which the only parts anyone remembers are Missy Elliott’s grand return and “left shark,” on Feb. 1, the most important musical performance of the month — and one of the most impactful of the year overall — took place four weeks later on the Oscars stage. Lady Gaga showed up on the red carpet and made instant headlines with her custom Alaïa gown and meme-worthy red gloves and then accomplished the rare feat of topping herself on the very same night. Her performance of a medley of songs from The Sound of Music earned acclaim not only from nearly every major media outlet, celebrity, and, viewer but from Julie Andrews herself; after she finished singing, Gaga welcomed Andrews to the stage and, like the rest of us, Andrews seemed legitimately overwhelmed with what she’d just witnessed. Gaga’s performance inspired a rush of articles and thinkpieces proclaiming it a career-defining comeback, and considering the great year Gaga went on to have, they were not exaggerating.
Et cetera: As previously stated, Katy Perry performed at the Super Bowl. 🎵 Madonna fell at the BRIT Awards. 🎵 The Grammys aired. 🎵 Iggy Azalea feuded with Papa John’s Pizza. 🎵 Lady Gaga became engaged to Taylor Kinney. 🎵 And our Gaga announced a starring role in the fifth season of American Horror Story, subtitled Hotel. 🎵 The Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack hit shelves and spawned several hit singles. 🎵 Drake dropped If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, a mixtape that would hold the record for biggest debut of the year until Justin Bieber’s Purpose dropped in November. 🎵 Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris reportedly began dating. 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album.
Zayn Malik Ruins the Teenage Dream By Leaving One Direction
That sound on a cold March morning: the sound of a thirteen million pre-teen hearts breaking in unison (and a flurry of unintelligible tweets being banged out on smartphone keyboards). Yes, it happened. We knew it would. There were signs. But in March, Zayn Malik — objectively the sexiest of “the lads” — left One Direction, the band that made him famous, leaving behind four objectively less sexy “lads.” At the time, he claimed he wanted time away from the spotlight, though he’s since spent the better part of 2015 not-so-subtly hyping the launch of his solo career. (At least we have that to look forward to!) One Direction trudged on and eventually released their first (and only???) Zayn-less album, but nothing has been the same since.
Et cetera: Flop music streaming service TIDAL launched with much (ridiculously grandiose) fanfare. 🎵 After several leaks, Madonna finally released her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, which became her first album since 1998 not to top the Billboard Album 200. 🎵 Kendrick Lamar released his highly-anticipated To Pimp a Butterfly. 🎵 Justin Bieber got roasted on Comedy Central. 🎵 Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” from the Furious 7 soundtrack was released and went on to top the Hot 100 for 12 non-consecutive weeks. 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album.
Madonna Kisses a Famous Person and, for the First Time, It Backfires
Rebel Heart may not have made a huge splash on the charts, but Madonna still knows how to make waves in the press. She did just that at Coachella when she made a surprise appearance during Drake’s set. At one point, she leaned in and kissed him hard on the mouth; his seemingly-disgusted reaction became instant news fodder, inspiring everything from memes to essays on ageism and sexism. Madonna and Drake traded some words back and forth for a short while after, but this was truly one of those events where the images do the work when they’re allowed to speak for themselves.
Et cetera: Sam Smith canceled his tour. 🎵 Hilary Duff released a new single, “Sparks.” 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album, but she did release a vaguely political video for her second single of the year, “American Oxygen.”
Taylor Swift Ruins #SquadGoals For Good
The obnoxious social media campaign leading up to the release of “Bad Blood,” the fourth single from Taylor Swift’s massive 1989, lasted for what felt like years. Every day, for an entire month, some barely-famous model posted her “character poster” to Instagram. (And we had to write about all of them.) The big day finally arrived on May 17, the day of the Billboard Music Awards. Upon its release, the video easily broke the Vevo 24-hour viewing record set by Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” in 2014. It became, much like everything else Swift has done the last year, inescapable. It also started somewhat of a mini-trend in which artists tried to replicate its success by inviting their own famous friends onto the sets of their music videos. (The most obvious derivation being Madonna’s “Bitch I’m Madonna,” released a month later.) Were it not for Adele’s world-conquering return, “Bad Blood” would have been, for better or for worse, the video event of the year. I suppose it will have to settle for the video event of the first half of the year instead.
Et cetera: Iggy Azalea and Britney Spears teamed up for the abysmal “Pretty Girls.” 🎵 Iggy Azalea canceled her tour-slash-career. 🎵 After months of playing it coy, Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris made their relationship official at the Billboard Music Awards. 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album.
To Apple, Love Taylor: The Greatest PR Stunt of the Year
Owing to a variety of factors, streaming music became the biggest music “biz” story of the year (and perhaps the biggest one of the last decade). It began in earnest in late 2014, when Taylor Swift opted to withhold 1989 from streaming services like Spotify. (She also removed most of her older music.) In March of this year, Jay Z launched TIDAL, a “premium” streaming service that, to this day, has yet to clearly define its mission (or become a legitimate competitor in the space). And then came Apple Music, the only real Spotify competitor. Before launch (on June 30), the big question on everyone’s mind was whether music (like Swift’s) that had been withheld from Spotify finally be available to stream on the new platform.
At first, it looked like the answer would be no: Swift posted a letter to her Tumblr explaining why she didn’t agree with Apple Music’s business model, citing specifically their free three-month trial period in which artists would not be compensated. Lore has it that this letter single-handedly convinced Apple to revise their policies, thereby appeasing Swift and true artists everywhere. (However, it is clear to most people with half a working brain that this whole ordeal was orchestrated as absolutely brilliant PR.) In the end, Swift allowed 1989 to stream on Apple Music, though debate about what this meant — who it helped and who it harmed — raged on for months. And just as it began to die down, Adele decided to “pull a Swift” and keep 25 off of streaming platforms, reigniting the discussion once more. The debate rages on, but, hey, you can stream your favorite Swift songs to pass the time while it all gets sorted.
Et cetera: Lady Gaga was honored with a Songwriters Hall of Fame award. 🎵 Beyoncé whipped her fans into a frenzy with a mysterious announcement only to disappoint everyone by shilling for a vegan diet company. 🎵 Madonna released her “Bad Blood”-knockoff video for “Bitch I’m Madonna.” 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album.
Meek Mill Takes on Drake and Lives to Regret It
The year’s biggest beef in hip-hop — and probably the biggest beef of 2015 period — all started when Meek Mill, best known for dating Nicki Minaj, who is approximately 72,874 percent more popular than he is, took a shot at Drake on Twitter. What followed was an epic, months-long back-and-forth that featured multiple freestyles and diss tracks, a thrilling parade of memes, and a ultimately a lot of fun had at Mill’s expense. Drake inarguably walked away the victor; every time he opened his mouth — on wax, on stage, on social media — it was like hearing the sound of another nail being hammered into Mill’s coffin. Mill’s responses, meanwhile, were rightfully seen as weak and lame. But in this small way, everyone was a winner: it was a brawl in the classic sense, in which all involved parties got their name in the paper, entertained a willing audience, and no one got hurt (aside from, perhaps, Mill’s pride).
Et cetera: Speaking of beef, Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj publicly feuded on Twitter. 🎵 Ariana Grande licked a donut and paid the price. 🎵 News broke that One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson and his girlfriend Briana Jungwirth are expecting a child. 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album, but she did release the epic “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.
The VMAs: Nicki Minaj Claps Back at Miley Cyrus; Kanye Runs for President
Though the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards were not responsible for giving us any incredibly memorable performances — unless you count Justin Bieber’s (probably phony) tears — they did give us a few good water cooler moments. First up: Nicki Minaj gave us what might be the year’s best quotable with “Miley, what’s good?” Minaj was understandably upset over remarks Miley Cyrus made about her in a New York Times interview earlier, and she used the world’s most appropriate stage to air out her grievances. Their beef fizzled out shortly thereafter, but still: it was a bonafide moment. The other big “thing” of the night came when Kanye West took the stage to accept the Video Vanguard Award and, instead of performing a medley of hits, as is the norm, he launched into a bizarre, rambling, and ultimately entertaining (and occasionally insightful) speech that, among other things, touched on his turbulent history with Taylor Swift. In the end, he ended up announcing that he was going to run for President of the United States in 2020, a statement he still claims he’s serious about.
Et cetera: The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness dropped Aug. 28 and moved 412,000 copies its first week on shelves and streaming platforms. 🎵 Miley Cyrus surprise-released Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, a collaboration with The Flaming Lips, for free. 🎵 After an interminable and annoying lead-up, Justin Bieber released his album’s official first single. 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album.
Justin Bieber Finds His Purpose
After a six-month public apology tour (and a successful collaboration with Skrillex and Diplo in the form of “Where Are Ü Now“) Justin Bieber’s “comeback” kicked into high gear with the release of “What Do You Mean.” The song and its video premiered during the last gasps of August, but in September, “Mean” officially went on to become Bieber’s first-ever No. 1 single on the Hot 100, breaking a handful of other records in the process. It also gave his forthcoming album, Purpose, the kind of momentum it would need to go on and become the smash it did: upon its release, it topped the charts and snagged the biggest debut of the year (a record he only held for a week until Adele returned with 25). Looking back, the Bieber
Revival Revolution began here, during these final days of summer.
Et cetera: Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. 🎵 Lady Gaga released “Til It Happens to You,” a song co-written with Diane Warren for the documentary The Hunting Ground. 🎵 Gaga was also named Billboard’s Woman of the Year. 🎵 Drake and Future dropped their joint mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive. 🎵 OMI’s “Cheerleader” was named Billboard’s No. 1 Song of the Summer. 🎵 Fetty Wap released his self-titled debut album and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Album 200. 🎵 Rihanna did not release an album.
Drake’s “Hotline Bling” Takes Over the Internet (and the World)
Despite the record-breaking, runaway smash that was and still is Adele’s “Hello,” there is a solid argument to made in favor of naming Drake’s “Hotline Bling” The Song of 2015. It began taking on a life of its own long before the video was released, but, man, when that video hit on Oct. 19… Drake’s dorky dance moves instantly became the stuff of legend. Cue the memes. Because he released the video in partnership with Apple Music, which does not report streams to Billboard, the song never reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, a fact which just goes to show that numbers aren’t everything in this industry. But chart placement is unimportant here: its impact is undeniable and inescapable. Though it may have only peaked at No. 2, it will remain No. 1 in the hearts of many.
Et cetera: Adele’s “Hello,” her first single since 2012’s “Skyfall,” impacted and broke nearly every imaginable record. 🎵 We all got a look at #Bieberconda. 🎵 Selena Gomez released Revival to moderate success and acclaim. 🎵 Demi Lovato released Confident to considerably less success and acclaim. 🎵 Janet Jackson released her first album in eight years. 🎵 American Horror Story: Hotel starring Lady Gaga began airing. 🎵 Gwen Stefani released “Used to Love You,” a song about her divorce from Gavin Rossdale. 🎵 Rihanna didn’t release an album, but she did, at least, give us cover art and a title: ANTI.
Hurricane Adele Impacts
There is not much to be said about Adele’s staggering, game-changing return that hasn’t already been said a million times. It was, in many ways, totally predictable. (We predicted it!) But even the most optimistic expectations didn’t completely capture the scope with which her third album, 25, would impact. Upon its release in late October, the album’s first single “Hello,” broke nearly every imaginable record, becoming the first-ever song to sell more than a million downloads in a week. 25 followed a month later, and watching the sales predictions tick up, day by day, from one million to two million to three million was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In one week, it became not only the biggest-selling record of the year but also the fastest-selling album of all time. All time! It was the event album we asked for, and the one we got. And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Et cetera: Justin Bieber’s Purpose outsold One Direction’s Made in the A.M. 🎵 Missy Elliott returned with a proper new single, “WTF (Where They From),” for the first time in a decade. 🎵 Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton went public with their relationship. 🎵 The American Music Awards aired. 🎵 Rihanna didn’t release ANTI.
The Calm After the Storm
Considering the year that was and all that happened, it makes sense that December (so far) has been eerily quiet. I could highlight the 2016 Grammy nominations being announced or mention the release of Coldplay’s new album, which is supposedly their last. But none of that stacks up against Adele’s continued reign, the ongoing meme-ification of “Hotline Bling,” the surprising longevity of Justin Bieber’s Purpose, or even the still-simmering fascination with Taylor Swift’s 1989 World Tour. In a perfect world, one in which symmetry mattered above all else, Rihanna would have released ANTI, thereby closing the open circle of this feature (and a very frustrating chapter in many of our lives). But as of this writing, we are no closer having ANTI than we were in January. What else is there to say? A lot happened in 2015. Much of it was good. Some of it was terrible. But it was a lot. Perhaps a quiet December is the blank slate we need, the perfect palate cleanser. A breather to prepare: for new music, new beefs, new likely Swift-less shenanigans. After all, 2015 is almost over, which only means that 2016 is almost here.
Et cetera: The 2016 Grammy nominations were announced, and, for once, they aren’t total garbage. 🎵 Music journalists almost unanimously named Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly the best album of the year. 🎵 Lady Gaga accepted Billboard’s Woman of the Year honor. Selena Gomez, Lana Del Rey, and many others also received awards. 🎵 Gaga also received a Golden Globe nomination for her role on AHS. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian welcomed their second child, Saint West. 🎵 Coldplay was announced as the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show headlining act. 🎵 Rihanna, for the last time this year, did not release an album.